The Cellulosic Reality

Some reports suggest cellulosic ethanol production is 10, perhaps 20, years away. But with POET’s Project Bell, it’s already here.

When POETs’ original plant in Scotland, SD., opened its doors in 1988, it was the only working corn-based ethanol plant in the entire state. Since then, the plant has expanded multiple times and now produces nine times its original capacity of 1 million gallons per year. But of all the improvements and changes at the plant—now POET Research Center — no one could have predicted just how monumental and significant its latest development would be.

Amidst reports stating it couldn’t be achieved for another 10 to 20 years, POET is on track to produce cellulosic ethanol by year’s end. POET’s cellulosic pilot facility, termed Project Bell, will have the capacity to produce 20,000 gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year using corn cobs as the feedstock.

It’s appropriate — if not a little ironic — that the future of ethanol will be carried out at POET’s original plant. J.E. “Jim” Putnam, who has been a legislator for 21 years in both the South Dakota House and Senate, witnessed the plant’s beginnings 20 years ago and has watched it grow ever since.

Putnam, who played an integral role in legislation that jump-started ethanol production in South Dakota, saw ethanol’s potential to help his state’s farmers. “When I first met [POET], I realized their work ethic and knowledge about engineering was going to make this work,” he says. “From that point on, I…continued to watch them.”

Putnam, and others like him, will have plenty more to watch as the original plant sets the stage for the next level in biofuels: cellulosic ethanol.


The biofuel used in cellulosic ethanol, an environmentally friendly fuel, comes from a wide range of sources, including wood, grasses and non-edible parts of plants. In the case of Project Bell, the biofuel comes from corn cobs.

As part of Project Bell, a $4 million investment, the existing Research Center has been expanded. The facility will house science- and engineering-related tasks associated with bringing cellulosic ethanol to commercial production, as well as developing innovations in the area. Once the plant is operational by the end of the year, POET will enter the process development and optimization stages.

“We’ll be testing all aspects of the conversion of cellulose to ethanol, our alternative energy strategies, as well as feedstock collection, storage and processing,” says Mark Stowers, Ph.D., Vice President of Research and Development, POET, Sioux Falls, S.D. Between now and the end of the year, Stowers says, POET will continue purchasing, installing and testing equipment for start up.

Innovations from Project Bell will range from advancements in corn cob collection, storage and transportation, to biomass pretreatments, enzymatic hydrolysis and fermentation. The initial pilot includes more than 18 different R&D innovations. “A typical day of research and development involves the evaluation of various process conditions, such as time, temperature, pressure and catalysts, to improve each step in the conversion of cellulose to ethanol,” Stowers says. “As we optimize each unit operation, we will also begin to integrate unit operations so that we can investigate overall process costs and test means to manage waste streams.”

POET’s Director of Expansion Projects Jeff Heikes adds that Project Bell will help validate the economics of POET’s cellulosic technology, both in profits for farmers and in advances using ethanol. “It’s a revelation in the way farmers harvest. That’s really the core of this technology. If we can master [the economics of this technology] and use our research plant to develop innovations, this will make our process more successful,” Heikes says.

[Lab Extension] Jeff Broin, CEO of POET, also acknowledges that as cellulosic technology rapidly develops, flexibility is paramount. So the Research Center and its expansion have been designed with the capacity to drive more pilot avenues. “As the world dedicates significant dollars to this technology, we want to make sure we’re versatile to take advantage of new processes that could become available over the next several years,” he says.

Project Bell will use technological advancements from POET’s past. “We started in 2000 with the development of BFRAC™ technology,” Broin says. “The goal back then was to create a fiber source to be eventually converted to ethanol through the cellulosic process.”

BFRAC, a biorefining technology, separates corn into three fractions: fiber, germ and endosperm. The endosperm is fermented to create ethanol, while the remaining fractions are converted into value-added co-products, including Dakota Gold HP™, Dakota Bran Cake™ and corn germ meal. In addition to these high-value co-products, the process also results in increased ethanol yields and decreased energy consumption.

Another part of POET’s cellulosic efforts is the BPX™ process, first introduced by the POET Research Center in November 2004.

POET’s next cellulosic effort is Project LIBERTY, which will produce cellulosic ethanol at the commercial level on a greater scale by 2011. In 2007, POET was awarded an $80 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to embark on the project, which involves expanding a 50-MGPY grain-to-ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa, into an integrated corn-to-ethanol and cellulose-to-ethanol biorefinery. Once complete, the facility will produce 125 MGPY, of which 25 million will be from corn fiber and cobs.

“Project Bell gives POET the opportunity to make sure everything [will run] smoothly when Project LIBERTY is operational in 2011,” says Dave Bushong, General Manager, POET Research Center.


During the next seven to 10 years, POET aims to make the cost of cellulosic ethanol similar to that of grain-based ethanol, Broin says. “The opportunities — not just in the United States but worldwide — for this technology are just short of phenomenal. Cellulosic ethanol can go a long way toward not just solving our national security issues, but alleviating problems created by global warming,” he says, noting there are enough corn cobs in the Midwest alone produce 5 billion gallons of ethanol. The implication of using, essentially, a waste product — corn cobs — as a source of biofuel is very Earth-friendly. Broin believes the combination of grain-based and cellulosic ethanol has the potential to replace all of the United States’ gasoline usage in the next two decades.

One major advantage of cellulosic ethanol is the amount of cellulosic biomass material in the United States. A joint study conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows there is currently more than 1 billion tons of biomass available. If converted, that biomass has the potential to produce 85 billion gallons of ethanol.

While he recognizes the inherent learning curve that farmers may face as they learn how to collect, store and transport corn cobs, Stowers points out that the technology represents a new income opportunity for farmers.

As POET drives this new technology to the forefront, Putnam predicts cellulosic ethanol will open new markets for farmers. He foresees a day when Americans fill their cars with a higher blended ethanol fuel, drastically cutting dependence on foreign oil and shifting money back into the economy. And to think, Putnam says, “it all came from these young men [at the original POET plant] in South Dakota.”



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